Astrophysics internships bring community college students to UCSC

Funded by the National Science Foundation, summer internships in computational astrophysics train students in a broad array of valuable skills

enrico ramirez-ruiz
Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz

The astrophysics program at UC Santa Cruz is reaching out to regional community colleges to discover and nurture talented students through a new summer internship program. The Lamat Summer Research Program on High-Performance Computing in Astrophysics gives students the opportunity to work with UCSC faculty and graduate students on projects using some of the world's most advanced computers.

Sponsorship as a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (NSF REU) site, awarded this year, has enabled UC Santa Cruz to expand the program, which began on a smaller scale in 2009 with Hartnell College in Salinas. Led by Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, an associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC, the Lamat program (lamat is the Mayan word for star) now includes Hartnell, Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz, Monterey Peninsula College in Monterey, and De Anza College in Cupertino.

"The program with Hartnell has been very successful. We now have about nine transfer students from Hartnell in the physics department. Our first graduate, Ricky Fernandez, went to Columbia University to pursue a Ph.D. in astronomy, and this year three more are going on to Ph.D. programs," said Ramirez-Ruiz.

The goal of the internships is not just to train astrophysicists, but to use astrophysical simulations as an exciting medium for imparting a broad array of scientific skills to the participants, he said. As high-performance computing becomes a routine tool, industry and government employers will seek graduates with expertise in this field. The broad physics palette of astrophysical simulations makes them an ideal training ground for many job situations.

The Lamat program also aims to encourage more Hispanic community college students to transfer to UCSC and pursue degrees in the so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Many Hispanic students attend community colleges such as Hartnell, where they comprise 60 percent of the student population, but relatively few of them earn STEM degrees. The Lamat program will increase the retention and graduation rates for minority students at community colleges through a comprehensive program of research instruction, mentoring, workshops, and support programs at UC Santa Cruz.

"We're basically discovering untapped talent in communities where people have not had these kinds of opportunities," Ramirez-Ruiz said. "It's a way we can bring talented students to our campus who otherwise wouldn't come."

UC Santa Cruz has a dedicated supercomputer facility for use by undergraduate students. Ramirez-Ruiz helped establish the Supercomputer Lab for Undergraduates (SLUG) with funding from his Packard Fellowship and from NSF and NASA grants.

UCSC also has the largest group of computational astrophysicists in the world, with 17 faculty members in three departments: Astronomy and Astrophysics, Earth and Planetary Sciences, and Physics. They use computer simulations to study exploding stars, black holes, planetary dynamics, galaxy formation, dark matter, and much more. Computer simulations have been called the third pillar of science, complementing theoretical and experimental approaches to complex problems.

Students in the Lamat program will learn basic computer programming skills in a five-day computer science "boot camp" during the winter break preceding their summer internships. The program also includes outreach to students' families. Ramirez-Ruiz said he plans to develop a "Family Astronomy Night" series of public lectures (some in Spanish) at the partner community colleges.

The NSF REU grant will provide approximately $380,000 over three years. The co-investigators of the successful proposal include UCSC undergraduate research coordinator Rebecca Anderson, STEM diversity programs director Malika Bell, and faculty members Charlie Conroy, Jonathan Fortney, and Mark Krumholz in astronomy and astrophysics, Francis Nimmo in Earth and planetary sciences, Tesla Jeltema in physics, and Jennifer Parker in art.